To play cricket in India today is to live in the shadow of Sachin Tendulkar. At most times it must be exhilarating. In just a few others it must be frustrating, for he seems to control the spotlight and it may only stray if he takes an early bow. If he doesnt, and if he fancies a good time in the middle, the support cast needs to do something ridiculously massive even to be noticed. Zimbabwe was always going to be a sitting target for century number 18. Clearly, Tendulkar was hurt by allegations that he had quite willingly underperformed at Kuala Lumpur. I wasnt there, but I do know that there is nothing in the world that can cause him to surrender in battle to a bowler, for he is a proud man. At his most eloquent, he says little but on the flight back from Toronto, already a tired man, he looked hurt as he scanned a newspaper clipping about Indias performance at the Commonwealth Games.
Personally, I was extremely surprised that he chose to issue a statement. It reveals a slightly sensitive side to him that existed all along, but was most zealously shrouded. I had thought he would merely create an avalanche of headlines to drown any that the Indian Olympic Association might create, by going out and scoring a bagful of runs. Instead, he chose to lay the ground with a carefully worded statement. But there was never any doubt that the runs would follow.
Century number 18 was always guaranteed to silence the country; to drown anything anyone might have said before. And against the weakest international bowling attack, his only enemy lay within. If he could overcome himself, the century was inevitable. His performance, post Kuala Lumpur, might actually give the sceptics a bit of ammunition; give them proof that his failures at the Commonwealth Games had more to do with himself than the opposition.
Even if you are a Tendulkar you cant always win, though I believe the final word should lie with the supporters and not with politicians who wanted to peep out of his shadow. And I think you will see that the Sahara Cup failure will be remembered far longer, and with greater hurt, than the misadventure at Kuala Lumpur. When the sea roars, it is difficult to shout above it. Tendulkars eighteenth century, almost exactly four years after his first, is a staggering achievement given that there was a time when Desmond Haynes alone had twice as many hundreds as all of Indias batsmen. I wonder if anyone can guess how many he will finish with, for one of the qualities of genius is that it constantly extends the limits of imagination. I actually think that if he can play against better opposition, in more challenging situations, he will score more hundreds than most people can project.
I think 35 is a pretty safe bet, and that will stretch most current batsmen. However, if he can approximate his most recent performance (five centuries a year) over the next eight years, we could be looking at a figure that is pretty awesome. The multiplication is elementary but even in front of my computer screen, I find my lips holding back the answer for we are in completely uncharted territory here. Will I be considered a madman if I force the word sixty out of my lips?
People even scoffed at the great Benaud when he suggested six hundred Test wickets for Shane Warne. Should I then bow to the limits of my mind, to a rather more salaried-middle-class view of the future, and stick to forty? Or will the future laugh at me as he drives past? Like it did my grandfather, when he refused to believe that gold could ever get more expensive than Rs. 196 per tola?! Can the best analysts, the best programmers, plot the limits of genius? Id still like him to reach 34 Test hundreds, though! And maybe he can pause along the way, just move aside a little bit to allow others their place in the sun.
If he had reached his eighteenth century in any other match for example, we would all be celebrating the achievement of Anil Kumble in becoming the first spinner in the history of the game to reach 200 wickets in one-day internationals. I think it is a wonderful event and one we should all stand up and applaud. He has been a team man of the very highest order all these years; happily bowling inside the first fifteen overs on the flattest of tracks against batsmen who have been served some juicy appetisers; quite willing to come back in the death against well set batsmen ready to pounce on the dessert. That is what makes his career statistics so remarkable, for he averages a mere 4.1 runs per over. In modern cricket, especially on the tracks on the sub-continent that can break a bowlers heart, anything under 5 runs an over is pretty good. Anything under 4.5 is exceptional. If you can average 4.1, without bowling too many of the middle overs, you have to be outstanding. In the all-time list of bowlers with the best economy rates (minimum qualification 100 wickets), Kumble comes in at number 19. The only spinners above him in that list are Roger Harper and Abdul Qadir, and both played their cricket in an era when 4.5 runs an over was a very good batting strike rate. And of those from the sub-continent to have played their cricket in these times, only Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas have done better. I have been at cricket matches where I have wished Kumble could bowl 25 overs right handed and 25 overs left handed for, every time the ball was in some other hand, the scoreboard seemed to move faster. And I have been amazed by his ability to stay cool and bowl the yorker in situations where the shoulder might have frozen out of tension. I am convinced that Anil Kumble is a titan of our times, and yet I sometimes think we havent really understood the enormity of his contribution. Perhaps it is because he is so understated in everything he does, so willing to share in the glory. His aggression in the field very rarely spills over outside it, and I have often wondered how a man who can appeal to the umpire with such vehemance can barely rise above a whisper in his interviews. Predicting how far Kumble will go is a rather more difficult exercise, because he is a bowler in a batsmans game. If he can keep going at about 1.3 wickets per game, certainly 300 wickets isnt beyond reach, though his first target will probably be Kapil Devs 253 wickets. Kapil got those in 225 matches, so you would have to back Kumble to get there in a fewer number of games.
Unlike Tendulkar, he has competition around every corner. Within the team, Javagal Srinath is making a strong resurgence and within his fraternity, Muralitharan and Saqlain Mushtaq are filling their bags pretty rapidly. And yet, as the laws and the pitches increasingly favour the batsmen, they will start to go against him. Given all that, if he can keep his economy rate at 4.1, he will do outstandingly for India. And when he picks up number 300, he must ensure that Tendulkar doesnt choose that moment to score his 10,000th run !